RENEGADES: OUTSIDER ART – KICKARTS ART EXHIBITION

Slide Panel

RENEGADES: OUTSIDER ART – KICKARTS ART EXHIBITION

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Exhibition Essays

Introduction

by Ingrid Hoffmann, Director

A cordial welcome to the Renegades website. Red, orange or green cordial? Here you’ll find a kaleidoscope of images, artists’ biographies, descriptions and links for the art in a big, exuberant exhibition.

Renegades: Outsider Art is presented at KickArts in the tropical northern city of Cairns between 24 May and 27 July 2013. Later the show heads south through Australia’s eastern states in a more compact size for touring; stable works are favoured for the road. So what’s wrong with unstable or fragile? Nothing, if the art is made from raw impulse and honest urges of the heart.

Renegades art comes from a sparkling spectrum of makers: studios supporting people with intellectual disabilities, community care centres, psychiatric settings and outer geographical reaches, or from purely free spirits. These ‘unlikely’ makers brim with creativity without academic instruction, connections to commercial or public art galleries, marketing, critics or art schools.

We welcome discussion on the term ‘outsider’ and why this genre of art has developed a following in Australia. Does it have a special aura? Why the classification anyway: doesn’t categorisation contradict the point of being a dissident or a renegade? Or do outsiders strive to join the mainstream? These questions have as many answers as there are artists in the exhibition: more than 50 renegades – or not renegades!

Some of the artists in Renegades have gained renown, their works regularly exhibited, bought and collected. Collectors and admirers know the same studios from which the majority of works in the exhibition are drawn: Arts Project Australia in Melbourne, Bindi Art in Alice Springs, Insideout Studio at Macquarie Hospital in Sydney, Ngaruwanajirri Artists on Bathurst Island, Concord Mental Health Unit in Sydney and the geographical outsiders of Erub Erwer Meta in the eastern waters of the remote Torres Strait.

In forming this exhibition, Franco-Australian curator Camille Masson-Talansier was stirred by the generosity of artists, studios, collectors and outsider art specialists. All the works she selected emit raw and real energy and sometimes an intellectual mission. Artist Bernard Vartuli’s philosophy remains at the heart of the Renegades quest: Knowledge and understanding have no limit to their depth, making their pursuit an eternal adventure.

 

Sketch for a Renegade History of Art

by Colin Rhodes

Not long ago John Demos spent the best part of three weeks making a piece of installation art in situ for his solo exhibition at Sydney’s Callan Park Galleryi. Visitors were knocked out by the show, describing it as containing some of the most interesting contemporary art they’d seen in a while. There is a compelling mixture of conceptualism, feeling for form, and the performative in Demos’ work that makes it speak to a sophisticated contemporary art audience – which in this instance included in large part professional artists and art students. Demos’ work, it seems, is emphatically part of that world. Yet, he himself is not a product of the system of art school, dealers, funding and talk that we expect our artists to come from. His background doesn’t fit the usual picture of the artist’s journey. In fact, he comes to the contemporary art gallery out of a context from which very few people expect art to emerge. He is, therefore, a kind of invader, a renegade, his art insinuating itself into the public domain. And he is not alone… In the realm of concept art his achievement has been followed in Sydney by Thom Robertsii and, in the unlikely medium of ceramic sculpture, Kevin Meagheriii.

While the professional, artworld artist is rightly the most commonly found, there is also an enormous wealth of art that comes from unlikely places; often from a ‘psychic elsewhere’, as the British writer Roger Cardinal would have it. This is art that often arises from studio situations, where groups of individuals produce work in unique styles, as in the case of the artists from Arts Project Australia, Art Unlimited, Bindi, and others supporting artists in Renegades. Many more artists pursue their singular practice alone, as in the case of Australia’s seminal outsider artist, Anthony Mannix. These artists from elsewhere are too often visible only in the event of some kind of tear appearing in the fabric of the artworld. As often as not the public impact of their work is immediate and strong, and the ripples of its appearance affects audiences who experience it for long afterwards. Sometimes, even, rapturous reviews are written by critics who are better known for finding fault than heaping praise (as often as not, it must be said, as a means of taking a swipe at the official artworld). But the fabric of the artworld has a way of quickly self-repairing and covering over the traces of these incursions.

People for whom art is a profession are under pressure to be framed within recognisable artworld structures of production and consumption. One way or another, for the last century or more, art schools the world over have attempted to inculcate students with the necessary skills not only to make art, but also to be functional artworld participants. Often this training is couched in adversarial terms; the encouragement of cultural critique, or following a path of resistance (political, yes, but usually with a small ‘p’). Yet, however much these professional individuals might see themselves as ‘outsiders’, or cultural guerrillas, they participate in the artworld, working within its structures, from the likes of Brett Whitely to the archetypal fictional artist, Hurtle Duffield, who is the main character in Patrick White’s The Vivisector (1970). This said there are many other people who, even though completely committed to the vocation of ‘artist’, are unable to easily engage, or to engage at all, in the system that makes and supports contemporary artists, and so have found themselves occupying marginal positions in relation to the ‘professional’ artworld for as long as it has existed. These artists often do not even use the term ‘artist’ to refer to themselves, but they are completely committed to their vocation nonetheless. Non-art-school, non-artworld, they are renegaded. They are the producers of outsider artiv.

Outsider art is a term that has its supporters and detractorsv. It seemed useful in 1972 when it was coined as a means of approximating in English something of the feeling of the rather poetic and difficult to translate French term, Art brut. Its author, Roger Cardinal, meant it to signify a kind of renegade positionvi. This was art, he said, that had arisen in realms that knew nothing of official artworlds, and which was emphatically separate to them. By dint of this, it occupied a position that was in real ways against prevailing artworld norms, although its creators were most often not cultural critics in any active sense. Rather, they occupied these other spaces somewhat centrally. In this way they were rather different to the heroic ‘outsiders’ described by the British writer Colin Wilson in his highly influential 1956 book, The Outsider. The outsiders he described were the Romantic cultural antagonists of reality and fiction, including William Blake, Vincent van Gogh and Fyodor Dostoevsky, as well as Hermann Hesse’s Harry Haller (Steppenwolf), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roquentin (Nausea). These were characters, said Wilson, who didn’t fit in, so to speak, but who made it their purpose to attack ‘bourgeois complacent acceptance.’vii In other words, here were individuals who chose and adopted a position, which was quite unlike the dramatis personae of Cardinal’s outsider art in 1972, who inhabited emphatically theirs, and included what are today considered the European ‘classics’, such as Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Heinrich Anton Müller and Madge Gill. But forty years ago these were people whose existence and powerful art had barely registered in the consciousness of either the artworld or the regular middle class home.

Ironically, it had mostly been professional, artworld artists like Paul Klee, Karel Appel, and Jim Nutt who had, on the whole, discovered and valued what Cardinal had now called outsider art. It was to be found in seemingly unlikely, ‘non-art’ places, such as psychiatric hospitals (Wölfli), the parlours of spiritualism (Augustin Lesage), remote and regional places (Ensio Tuppurainen), and sometimes in the lonely, impersonal jungles of teeming cities (Henry Darger). The most assiduous collector and champion of this kind of work was the great ‘mainstream’ French painter and sculptor, Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), who also invented the term Art brut to describe it. Whilst it has connotations of the renegade about it, the French word brut also variously signifies rawness, uncomplicatedness, naturalness and the unrefined, or, as Dubuffet would also have it, untaintedness. As a long-time and successful wine merchant, he also liked to compare this work with what he considered to be the best champagne, which is always, he said, brut, as opposed to that which is refined and sugared. Characteristically, he described the artist-brut as someone ‘unscathed by artistic culture’ and claimed, furthermore, that, ‘We are witness here to a completely pure artistic operation, raw, brute, and entirely reinvented in all of its phases solely by means of the artists’ own impulses.’viii

Dubuffet was keen to maintain the distinctiveness of Art brut from that of ‘official’ artworlds, and many of its subsequent apologists have been of like mind. However, their very enthusiasm has, over the decades, muddied the water, through staging exhibitions, publishing books and establishing of museums that were partisan, specialist and separatist. However, just by being public statements Art brut was inevitably brought closer to ‘official’ attention! In this way a kind of paradox has been created, which pits discovery and sharing against seclusion and exclusivity. Dubuffet himself, for example, published a series of ‘Art brut fascicules’ from 1964 on, staged a large exhibition of his collection at the Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris in 1967, and established a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Collection de l’Art Brut in 1976. There are other specialist museums and significant private collections around the world. In addition, in recent years especially, there have been a number of exhibitions around the world that have blurred the putative boundaries of Art brut and mixed it with what Dubuffet scathingly called ‘the usual art’.ix

The specific term ‘outsider art’ really began to gain ground first in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, where it seemed to provide a kind of descriptor for the pioneering individualism so beloved of American cultural mythology. Artists in Chicago especially, including Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and later Roger Brown, began to discover and celebrate homegrown artists-brut, such as Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger and Joseph Yoakum. Specialist dealers, such as Phyllis Kind and John Ollman started up, and in the southern states a whole new genre of religious and secular contemporary self-taught art was introduced to artworld audiences, including artists like Howard Finster, William Hawkins and Bill Traylor. Finster provided the artwork for an album cover for the band Talking Heads, and appeared on TV talk shows. But interestingly debate about the appropriateness of the term outsider art to describe the field was caused not so much by artists engaging with high and pop culture as the inclusion of self-taught African American artists like Hawkins and Traylor in its ambit. The development of their practice outside the mainstream artworld notwithstanding, use of the term outsider art in relation to peoples marginalised on social and racial grounds was (and still is) seen by many to be unhelpful and derogative.

Outsider art in Australia really began to be noticed and discussed only in the 1980s. There had been a longer standing interest here in naïve art, consisting largely of pastoral and memory paintings made in regional and remote placesx (much of which might, incidentally, be described as outsider art) going back at least to the 1940s, but the search for a specifically Australian Art brut came later. In spite of the fact that the founding of Australia’s large mental asylums was more or less contemporaneous with those of Europe and the USA, to date there has been no similar revelation here of the patient art from the late-19th and early-20th centuries that formed the bedrock of outsider art’s foundational history in the northern hemisphere, especially as symbolised by the influential Prinzhorn Collection, amassed in Heidelberg, Germany, from German and Swiss hospitals around 1919. The closest thing in Australia is Melbourne’s extensive Dax Collection, which was put together as a medical teaching resource by the psychiatrist Dr Eric Cunningham Dax (1908–2008) who was, among other things, a pioneer of art therapy. As such, the creators of the works in the collection remain anonymous and its collecting strategy is based on symptomatology rather than aesthetics. Also worthy of mention, though virtually unknown and relatively inaccessible, is the Larundel Collection, a substantial body of artworks of varying finish and quality made primarily in the art studio at the Larundel Psychiatric Hospital, Melbourne, between around 1987 to 1997, and currently in the care of the mental health organisation NEAMI.

Taking their cue from Dubuffet and Cardinal, people like Terence Relph, Rosemarie Jeffers, Philip Hammial, Ulli Beier and the artist Anthony Mannix in Sydney, and Stephen, Sylvia and Tony Convey in the ACT, pioneered the collection and propagation of Australian outsider art. Relph and Jeffers ran the Outsider Gallery in Balmain, Sydney, from 1979–1983, and Hammial and Mannix founded the Australian Collection of Outsider Art in 1985 (joined in 1992 by John Blades). The inaugural exhibition under the auspices of the group, Inside Out: An exhibition of Outsider Art, was held at one of Sydney’s prime contemporary art venues, Artspace, in 1986, and many of New South Wales’ mainstream galleries have shown outsider art consistently since that time, including Nick Waterlow’s selection of European Art brut at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in 1999. Beier and Hammial edited the first substantial publication on Australian outsider art in 1989xi and the group was also much involved in a special issue of the Australian journal Art and Text a year earlierxii, which also included a piece by Cardinal and translations of two key texts on Art brut by Dubuffet, thereby setting a distinctly Europhile tone for early Australian definitions of outsider art that privileged mental health and visionary perception. Artists associated with the Australian Collection of Outsider Art include, besides Mannix, Marc Bour, Gunther Deix, Liz Parkinson, Phillip Heckenburg, Janine Hilder and Anthony Hopkins, and the group has had a hand in around thirty exhibitions in Australia and overseas, including a major survey, Australian Outsiders, in 2006 at the Orange and Hazlehurst Regional Galleries and the Halle St Pierre, Paris, France. They have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Orange Regional Gallery and its long-time Director, Alan Sisley, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of outsider and visionary art.

Other more or less parallel Australian histories of outsider art also unfolded. In Adelaide, the dealer Paul Greenaway and artist Paul Hoban are worth mentioning, among others in South Australia, as long-time supporters of outsider art, including artists Vittorio Bann and Iris Frame. Perhaps the best known of the Adelaide outsiders is Jungle Phillips, whose house and yard are given over almost entirely to his art. In 2005, Phillips was given an exhibition at the South Australian School of Art Gallery, when his canvases and cutouts were shown alongside work by the classic American self-taught artist, Mary T. Smith. In 2011 the same gallery hosted a major exhibition of Australian and international outsider art, Margin to Centre: Visionary Art.xiii For three decades Steve Fox worked in community arts from South Australia to the Northern Territory, before opening Mogo Raw Arts and Blues on the NSW south coast in 2006. His connections to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island groups, including ‘Art in the Garage’ in Bega, NSW, as well as his continued work in the disability and mental health sectors, meant that during its short existence the gallery supported some of the best of what Fox described as ‘Raw Art’, including artists like Tim Sharp (Queensland), Luiza Urbanik (ACT) and Michael Williamson (NSW).

In Sydney, people like Nigel Lendon and Peter Fay combined an interest in mainstream contemporary art with a passion for self-taught and outsider art. Fay’s taste, in particular, favors the artless creator, suggesting comparisons with much secular self-taught American art, rather than classic European Art brut. This was much in evidence in the exhibition he co-curated in 2008 with Glenn Barkley, Without Borders: Outsider Art in an Antipodean Context, at the Monash University Museum of Art and the Campbelltown Arts Centre. In general, though, Fay prefers to mix up self-taught and professional, mainstream artists in both his collecting and curatorial activities. Home Sweet Home: works from the Peter Fay Collection (2003) at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, challenged, according to curator Deborah Hart, ‘established conventions through bringing together art by both mainstream and marginalised artists to blur the boundaries between the two.’xiv And this strategy was reprised by Fay in his Bloodlines: Art and the Horse (2007), at the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Windsor.

Besides having a good eye for idiosyncratic creators such as Gina Sinozich and Slim Barrie, Fay has also been a serious collector and champion of art made by individuals with learning and developmental disabilities, since his encounter with Arts Project Australia, Melbourne, in 1997. A year later, Stuart Purves, Director of Australian Galleries, independently discovered Arts Project Australia for himself at the Melbourne Art Fair. An exhibition showcasing a decade of Purves’ collecting, Pearls of Arts Project Australia, toured a number of NSW galleries between 2008 and 2009xv. Arts Project Australia had its origins two decades before when a group formed with the aim of creating a collection of works from centres around the state of Victoria working with people with intellectual and learning disabilities. The discovery by one of Arts Project Australia’s driving forces, Myra Hilgendorf, of Créahm, a Belgian supported atelier and workshop,xvi led to the development of a studio program in Melbourne based on similar lines, which commenced in 1984.xvii

There are specialist studios providing supportive creative environments for visual artists with intellectual and learning disabilities around the globe, from the likes of Créahm, Herenplaats and HPCA in Europe, to Creative Growth and Creativity Explored in the US, and Atelier Incurve in Japan. Yet nowhere has the specialist studio been such an important driver of public definitions of outsider art than in Australia. This is in large part because the beginnings of serious interest in the outsider art idea here was more or less simultaneous with the rise of the specialist studio that produced artists from parts of the population where previously there had effectively been none.xviii Thus the ‘discovery’ of Australian outsider art in the 1980s was an event that already spanned the full breadth of the contemporary field in ways that had not been the case in either Europe or the USA, both of which had experienced more developmental processes of iteration over longer periods of time. That the art produced in the specialist studios was (and more often than not still is) considered as outsider art is interesting, though unsurprising, since it conforms to many of the founding dogmas of the field. As I have written elsewhere, ‘In Outsider Art we are witness to a conceptual space in which work by a varied group of practitioners is accorded value by an audience, and in which critical reflection and market exchange occurs, but which is founded on notions of marginalization from the putative “mainstream”. It is a space in which visual communication as primary – and sometimes exclusive – means is actually allowed, without damaging the artist’s reputation.’xix The specialist studio artist appears to fit this description. Yet, the apologists of outsider art also suggest that work should appear from its creators spontaneously, fully formed and unmediated. In this context a new problematic arises, for however much we might witness strong, individual styles of expression among artists with intellectual and learning disabilities, they require structured working environments and sensitive but clear enabling mechanisms, both to produce work and to develop a continuous practice.

In Australia the impact on outsider art of Arts Project Australia in particular has been profound, as testified by its prominent presence in Renegades, through long-established figures, such as Alan Constable, Julian Martin, Dorothy Berry and Leo Cussen, as well as less well-known artists, such as Warren O’Brien and Allan Liebe. Other studios have followed since Arts Project Australia commenced its activities, including Art Unlimited (Geelong, VIC), Tutti (Adelaide, SA) and Studio Artes (Hornsby, NSW). Moreover, a number of other specialist studios in the mental health environment have also emerged, including NEAMI Splash (Melbourne, VIC), Weave Arts Centre and the MQE Studios (both Sydney, NSW), which mirror others overseas, such as Haus Kannen (Germany).xx Arts Project Australia also hosted the first international survey of work from specialist studios, Revealing the Human, in 2009. This groundbreaking exhibition was a precursor to the much larger Exhibition #4 in London in 2011, which was part of collector and impresario James Brett’s ongoing Museum of Everything project.xxi

If work by self-taught African-American artists occupies contested space in the field of outsider art in the USA, then the issues are doubly foregrounded in the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. Some have suggested that the marginalisation of Australia’s Indigenous peoples by settler culture has created outsiders. But this racist characterisation merely views culture from a monolithic perspective and confuses it with social power plays. Contemporary artists engaged in cultural resistance and political critique, such as Michael Riley, might be ‘outsiders’ in the vein of Colin Wilson, but never artists-brut. Similarly, the rich cultures of Indigenous Australians, stretching back tens of thousands of years, in themselves form centred communities of shared learning and creativity that hardly fit the model of the manifold, but always unique, idiosyncratic psychic elsewhere of outsider art. Creativity belonging to and following tradition through learned techniques and iconography, as in the paintings of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa or Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, is not outsider art. Why then, is work by a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people included in Renegades? I see two reasons. Firstly, some of the artists come from a similar specialist studio context to that of Arts Project Australia, as with Estelle Munkanome, who works at Ngaruwanajirri, and Billy Kenda, who is part of the Mwerre Anthurre artist’s collective at Bindi Inc. Their artistic production is characterised by the same uniqueness of worldview as those like Dorothy Berry and Adrian Segon. The only significant difference is that, whereas the latter two work in a context that is urban and mostly, though not exclusively, non-Aboriginal, Munkanome and Kenda live and work in remote, traditional communities. Secondly, there are artists here who produce work in more properly naïve styles, that take local and pan-cultural contexts as the basis for creating new idioms where the old have been lost, as with the memory paintings of Adrian King, or the terracotta spirits of Sarah van Hooren.

There are many who dispute the existence or legitimacy of outsider art. Yet, as field, and as historical fact, there is and has been such a thing. Many others argue that outsider art is now something that is fully historical, a completed modernist project, snuffed out by the closure of the big lock-up psychiatric hospitals in the West and the advent of sophisticated drug therapies. This is, of course, to see outsider art only in the context of mental health. It is also only to see the idea through a negative lens. A notion of outsider art can be an important part of a process of making visible to broad-based audiences that which would otherwise be submerged because it has come from an ‘unlikely’ place. The initial risk is separation through a marking of difference. The prize, though, is surely the recognition and valuing of creative work, and through it, inclusion. This need not, of course, flatten difference. There is a work in Renegades by Kevin Meagher, called Devi Hecate. Characteristically, it is a two-part thing, for the artist trades in doubles; not the western dialectic or the eastern yin and yang, but his own cosmological laws of two. This raw ceramic sculpture is a deity made flesh. It is also the deific form of the flesh. This is an eruption of the ‘psychic elsewhere’ that Cardinal talks about. It could not have come out of an artworld practice – although so much that is magnificent and important has and does – and its power lies in its very idiosyncrasy. We who are not the artist are, if we open ourselves up to it, given a unique, privileged experience. That is outsider art’s past, present and future.

Colin Rhodes

Dean, Sydney College of the Arts

References

[i] The exhibition was ‘John Demos’, Callan Park Gallery, Sydney, 13 April – 20 May 2011

[ii] In ‘Studio Artists Collaborate’, Gaffe Gallery, Sydney, 5-16 April 2012, and ‘Studio Artists Consolidate’, Callan Park Gallery, Sydney, 6-29 June 2012

[iii] ‘Kevin Meagher – Ceramic Sculpture and Drawings’, Callan Park Gallery, Sydney, 27 May – 23 June 2010

[iv] The idea of the outsider as renegade is an interesting one, suggesting the figure of the outlaw or bushranger. Interestingly, for a brief time an unlikely group of British outsiders and visionary artists, including Damian and Delaine LeBas, James Lancaster, Raymond Morris, Vonn Stropp and John McQuirk gathered together under the banner of ‘Outlaws’, including participating in an exhibition of that title at London’s Diorama Arts Centre (2001)

[v] For a recent installment of the debate surrounding Outsider Art see, for example Colin Rhodes, ‘A Much Maligned Monster: Why Outsider Art Doesn’t Lock Horns with the Artworld’, Contemporary Visual Art and Culture Broadsheet, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2010, pp. 70-72, and Adam Geczy, ‘The Solid Fraud of Outsider Art’, in ibid., 66-69

[vi] Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art, London: Studio Vista, 1972

[vii] Colin Wilson, The Outsider, London: Victor Gollanz, 1956, p.15

[viii] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Art Brut in preference to the cultural arts’ [1949], in A. Weiss, ed., Art Brut: Madness and Marginalia. Art & Text (Special Issue), 27, 1988, p.33 (my emphasis)

[ix] ‘Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger’ (2008) at the American Folk Art Museum, New York was a good example of this. It placed professional, trained artists alongside the self-taught outsider, Darger not merely in this instance to bring ‘mainstream’ and ‘outsider’ under one roof, but also to illustrate, in the words of curator Brooke Davis Anderson, ‘how one self-taught master has spawned a new movement.’

[x] See, for example, Charles W.B. Lehmann, Australian Primitive Painters, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Brisbane, 1977, and John Olsen, Naïve Painters, Art and Australia , Vol. 2 no 1, May 1964, pp10-17

[xi] Ulli Beier, Rudy Krausman and Philip Hammial (eds.), Outsider Art in Australia, Aspect No.35, 1989

[xii] A. Weiss, ed., Art Brut: Madness and Marginalia. Art & Text (Special Issue), 27, 1988. One of the few other publications in Australia to devote a special issue to Outsider Art was Artlink (see Artlink, Vol. 12, No. 4 Summer 1992 -93)

[xiii] Margin to Centre: Visionary Art, SASA Gallery, Adelaide, 5 July – 5 August 2011, curated by Paul Hoban and Colin Rhodes. Catalogue can be found at http://w3.unisa.edu.au/artarchitecturedesign/sasagallery/catalogues/MCsmall.pdf

[xiv] Deborah Hart, ‘Home Sweet Home: works from the Peter Fay collection’, http://nga.gov.au/homesweethome/Part1.cfm

Fay’s generosity was reflected in his donation of all the objects in the exhibition to the collection of the NGA. Similarly, in 2008, a gift by Fay made possible the acquisition of a unique collection of Outsider Art by the Portuguese sculptor José dos Santos for STOARC, at the University of Sydney.

[xv] See Stuart Purves, John McDonald, Pearls of Art Project Australia, Collingwood, VIC: Australian Galleries, 2007. At the end of the exhibition run Purves generously gifted the bulk of the collection to STOARC, at the University of Sydney.

[xvi] Créahm (Créativité et Handicap Mental), based in Liège, Belgium had been founded in 1979. Its scope covers visual and performing arts, as well as technical workshops.

[xvii] On the beginnings and development of APA see: M. Hilgendorf, ‘“Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity”: the origins of Arts Project Australia’ and C. Day, ‘The Studio Workshop Program’, in Inside Out: Artists from Arts Project Australia, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, 6-31 August 1992

[xviii] For a sketch on the circumstances surrounding the appearance of artists with intellectual and learning disabilities in the late 20th century see my, ‘An Other Academy: Creative Workshops for Artists with Intellectual Disabilities’, The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2008, 129-134

[xix] ibid., p.130

[xx] On the role and philosophy of the contemporary specialist studio see my, ‘Unseen to Seen: Some Thoughts on the Specialised Studio’, in Unseen Ways: Eight Sydney Artists’, exhibition catalogue, Macquarie University Art Gallery, Sydney, 2010

[xxi] Revealing the Human, Arts Project Australia, Northcote, VIC, 3 September – 17 October 2009; The Museum of Everything Exhibition #4, Selfridges, London, 1 September – 25 October 2011 (interestingly, Australian Alan Constable featured prominently in all the reviews of the show)

 

Renegades: the dissident and the free spirited

by Camille Masson-Talansier, Curator

From the common human experience of the ages comes the reference material that artists harvest. They may draw on the recurrent forces of religion and philosophy to find meaning for humanity and mortality. Or they extract from nature to find a place in the natural realm. They fantasise with beauty, love, war and eroticism. They write visual diaries to describe daily life, or paint to glories of the past, or to present politics.

Renegades is a compendium of artworks emanating from the dissident and the free-spirited of Australian art. It is an eclectic artistic space where ‘outsiders’ of all persuasions rub shoulders. And it is where contemporary artists of a tormented debut-de-siecle would like to be – those who, as art critic John McDonald suggests, ‘strive to emulate the unselfconscious creative processes of outsiders’T. Frequently, Renegades comes from places where art-making is a means of spiritual and mental survival; visual incursions into places of personal relevance for the artist, such as machines, home life, stories about illness, imaginings, spirituality and whimsical fables.

There are many surprises in Renegades; a cross-cultural, cross-generational conversation takes place, at odds with the idea of outsider art being virgin of the influence of contemporary movements, of past masters or made only from the depths of raw impulse without reference or connection. Can there be such a thing as an artist working in a vacuum, especially today when even the most isolated homebody, on stepping out, is serially bombarded with references to art at bus-stops, while generic mobile-phone tunes play Beethoven’s Clair de Lune? Today it is difficult to find old believers in the woods making art from birch trees.

This art just is. Not always infused with message, sometimes it simply has the merit of existing as a moment of bare expression. Yet the spiritual is often present. It is ever pervasive in the works of Paul Freeman, James Ackhurst and Bernard Vartuli. Our renegades are specifically Australian, some with short shrift for political or religious discourse, others the opposite, as the revolutionary postures of Sam Bullock and Kyaw Zin Aung show.

Subtle historical and symbolic references abound and populate the exhibition so that with lateral analysis, strong visual parallels could be drawn between the following artists:

  • Terry Williams’ flying circus and Marc Chagall’s circus paintings;
  • Jimmy Thaiday’s Le Op figure and Jean Dubuffet’s Limbour as a Crustacean;
  • Alan Constable’s Dr Who and Christ and the Coptic frescoes of Egypt’s Bawir Monastery from the sixth and seventh centuries;
  • Christopher Mason’s ‘fat ladies’ and Fernando Botero’s El gato Colombiana bronze cat sculpture;
  • Warren O’Brien and Ian Fairweather’s work;
  • Bernard Vartuli’s plane and tower plans, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s helicopter invention and Archimedes’ screw drawings;
  • Chayni Henri’s Virgin of Tiwi and the votive paintings of Portuguese and Mexican Milagros.

A brief insight into the worlds of Renegades’ artists may provide clues to where their journeys visually crossed paths and how points of rupture exercised the greatest influence on their artistic careers.

Rheumatic fever made for a sickly childhood for fresh and childlike artist Sue Wooldridge. Schooled in her early years in rural Harden, New South Wales, she was soon to start working hard in a hotel making beds for a living. She went on to live in Sydney, running away from the rural life with a friend in a dangerous bid for independence, with little opportunity for study.

Sue Wooldridge’s art is a language of its own. It is the jolliness and the angst of a grandmother surrounded by grandchildren and angels, poor health and social housing. The words she cannot write appear as faces splashed across the canvas, each with a profound joy and melancholy for all to read. She has trained us to listen to her language. Her art is fed by the people she sees, by popular comic characters, her memories and wooden historical figures, which acquire their own peculiar context. Her small worker’s cottage in Sydney’s central suburbs is the backdrop for a host of characters portrayed in her paintings.

Forests cooling the towers of Bernard Vartuli’s ink drawing are the ingenious solution of a Renaissance man applying his science to the twenty-first century. He possesses the curiosity and the methodology of his childhood hero Leonardo da Vinci and the idealisation of an unyielding world.

What if we could cool a tower with a forest? I noticed that it can be much cooler in a forest because the trees are cooling the air through evaporation….

The Wright brothers who built the first aeroplane were childhood heroes. I was always fascinated by flight and made models, I would imagine what the airflow over them is like. I have translated this imaginary airflow into a spacescape. This drawing and model is a design for a small sportplane to go flying around in. I did a spacescape painting on one half to represent the subjective fused with the objective, as indispensable to each other. One, a stable framework or support enabling the other to express an idea.

  Art may be about perceiving beauty and experiencing wonder. Knowledge and understanding have no limit to their depth, making their pursuit an eternal adventure. I try to learn from nature because it has been at it since the dawn of time. I see nature as the ultimate know-how, the best blend of art and invention. I think every possibility in existence already has its example in nature.

                                                            B. Vartuli, personal communication, 26 August 2012

I have come into contact with an express visual language in hospitals where the artist-patient spends half an hour immersed in a world incommunicado to step out triumphantly, leaving behind without a backward glance a work of art, ready to move back meekly into the world of confinement. The work of art was by-the-by, a step towards an invisible future or a brief recollection of the past. A fleeting act posed like catching a bus or eating breakfast. Others yet have an obsessive attachment to their work, holding it fiercely to their chests in a gesture of accumulation, possession and intense privacy. These are very different contexts from contemporary artists whose rationale will often support their oeuvre with a certain dose of savvy, crudeness and rawness distilled for the market.

The human is everywhere in Renegades, faces and bodies peeking and appearing together, isolated, jovial, huge and bloated, smudged into oblivion and idealised according to personal fantasy. The human in this exhibition is the focus of all attention, the human form in all its vulnerability, its psychoses, its playfulness and ideals. By extension, the things humans do, write, work on, dream, fight, imagine and observe are all there too.

Anthony Mannix’s totemic women are only vaguely erotic. They are psychedelic talismans affixed with esoteric significance. Valerio Ciccone’s action people are strong, frontal, facing the world without fear. Catherine Staughton’s humans are infused with complexity and drama, Leo Cussen’s with wooden action and humour. Billy Kenda’s are diving into the landscape, taken up by the action of doing. The narrative paintings of Adrian King, Patrick Butcher and Enid Kepple place the human in country while Christopher Mason’s ‘solid types’ with small heads occupy and dominate space through sheer protuberance.

Sometimes artists have come from dissociated milieus; they have become artists after a life as a gardener or mechanic. An unexpected encounter or illness has sometimes metamorphosed into a new life as an artist. This first life elucidates the power of the second.

I have learned, so far, that the most important thing is to know what my values are. I went through my life not knowing what they were. Mine are knowledge, understanding and truth. Life unfolds from the values. I began studying art more than ten years ago but only recently became more serious about being an artist. I had a brush with mental illness and began painting again in hospital. I did a small A4 abstract pattern painting every day for two months. I guess I was interested in underlying patterns to life, trying to understand the physical or psychological structures that life hangs on. It was part of a redemption. I think many people suffer unnecessarily because they do not yet have a sound philosophy to live by. A philosophy of moral certainty. I inadvertently put a value on suffering and my mind and emotions took me to experience them because that’s what I had put a value on. I had also mistakenly thought that my emotions were tools of cognition but they are not, only my mind is. Others put a value on depravity and their emotions and mind take them there. I think people are looking for their self, which is their identity, characterised by their values. The self is the only place where we can be ourselves, the place we belong.

B. Vartuli, personal communication, 26 August 2012

Geographical outsiders included in this exhibition, the creators of the ‘little people’ from Erub Island in the Torres Strait, speak of the form in parallel idioms. Using wood-fired clay figures, artists Jimmy and Sweeney Thaiday, Sarah Van Hooren and others have made Kebika Legiz, the little people, narrating tribal Island stories about warriors, leaders and role models. Hair and drift from the beach are used to dress these figures of high standing.

Works in Renegades: Outsider Art have been grouped subjectively according to their more prominent visual idioms. Several themes serve to arrange the works within a visual and psychological frame: distortion, enlargement and simplification, repetition and the serial, isolation, lyrical and the scientific, narratives and amalgams. Many artworks could just as well fall under several themes but their intrinsic qualities with linked idioms offered the structural approach taken.

We are privileged to discover the breadth of artists working outside the normalised world of Australian art in so many configurations and contexts. I want to thank all the extraordinary people I have met and worked with on this project for their time generously shared, and for the trust they have given me, and the light they radiate.

 


T  From How outsiders get a raw deal, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 6, 2008